A House committee unanimously agreed Wednesday to advance the "raise the age" legislation, which would prevent North Carolina from becoming the only remaining state that automatically treats these teens as adults in the courts system.
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In April, New York lawmakers agreed to a two-year phase out of the practice.
"We need to keep our communities safe from the 3 percent of juveniles that do us harm, but what about the other 97 percent?" said Ben David, New Hanover County district attorney. "They make mistakes and unlike the other states, when our juveniles make them, they wear the scarlet letter for life."
The proposal, which has support from law enforcement groups and lawmakers in both parties, would shift the cases for those teens accused of misdemeanors and certain nonviolent felonies to the juvenile court system, where records are confidential. The change would take effect in 2019.
This bill is "something that some of us have been fighting for and wanting for many years and I'm glad to see that all of the stakeholders are now on board and hopefully this will become a reality," Democratic Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield of Wilson County said.
One judge called his passionate plea to lawmakers the most important three minutes of his career.
"I support passage of HB280, urge the passage as soon as possible," said J.H. Corpening II, Chief District Court Judge, New Hanover County. "Our children need us and this is great legislation."
Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Moore, Randolph, successfully amended the bill Wednesday to allow juvenile court counselors to conduct gang assessments -- meaning harsher sentences for gang-related crimes.
"Gangs recruit juveniles because they have less chances of getting the maximum sentence," McNeill said. "What you're doing here is opening up better recruitment for gangs."
House judiciary committee unanimously approves 'Raise the Age' bill (HB 280) Goes to appropriations committee tomorrow #abc11— Heather Waliga (@WaligaABC11) May 10, 2017
The action in the House came as the Senate began debating a budget plan that also would eliminate automatic adult court for these youth. That measure differs from the House proposal by limiting the exemption to misdemeanors only and implementing the shift a year later.
"I think the fact that it's in the budget indicates that there's broad support for addressing that issue and I think that's something that you will see when all is said and done with this General Assembly - something will be done about that," Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, said at a news conference Tuesday.
The House bill doesn't yet have the full support of some lawmakers, like Republican Rep. Sarah Stevens of Surry County, who raised concerns over which levels of crime are exempt or included in the measure.
Stevens said that she is concerned whether the juvenile court system is prepared to take in some of the more serious felonies that are included in the bill, such as involuntary manslaughter.
How to pay for the change is also a key issue.
"This is a hard issue because you've got to put money into the juvenile system before you see the benefits of it on the backend," McGrady said.
According to a document from nonpartisan General Assembly staff, it would cost the state about $25 million to implement the preliminary bill in its first year, with costs growing to roughly $44 million annually in the early 2020s.
"There are all sorts of ways that we could fund this in different ways depending on where you draw the line," McGrady said. "We seem to now have agreed on the principle and that's huge."
The proposal has also been pushed by North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin. Martin told legislators earlier this month that ending the practice would do away with the lasting stigma of a public criminal record for those who commit nonviolent teenage misdeeds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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